While the owners of Hobby Lobby rejoice in their ability to withhold insurance coverage from their employees, a new State Department report reveals that around the world, 2013 was a terrible year for Christians facing real oppression.
The report, the “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013,” hearkens back to that time when “religious freedom” meant religious freedom—i.e., the ability to practice one’s own religion without restriction from majority groups. The news is sobering.
“In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory,” the report begins—and this was before the Sunni-Shia civil war now engulfing much of the Middle East. Christians have fared especially poorly.
In Syria, Christians had comprised 10% of the population—though estimates are now down to 8 percent, as Christians have been fleeing in droves. The city of Homs, for example, once had a Christian population of 160,000. Now it is about 1,000. In 2013, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees fled back to Iraq , where now, of course, they face annihilation in Mosul at the hands of the Islamic State.
China, too, has been persecuting its Christian population, which includes between 23 and 40 million Protestants, and 9 million Catholics. Christianity is a “nationally recognized religion”—sort of. Actually, what is recognized are only two “patriotic religious associations” of those clergy who agree to tow the Chinese regime’s line. According to the State Department report, those who do not are routinely arrested, evicted from their homes, and even sent to labor camps.
That includes the Catholic hierarchy. The “Catholic Patriotic Association” does not recognize the Vatican, and requires its affiliates to publicly pledge support for the Chinese Communist Party.
Of course, this is better than the plight of Falun Gong (70 million practitioners), which has been labeled an “evil cult” and persecuted accordingly, or of Tibetan Buddhism (2.7 million adherents), which has been officially outlawed, and replaced (officially) with state-sponsored forms.
Elsewhere in the world, Christians have been attacked and killed in Egypt (42 churches attacked in the period from August 14-17 alone), Pakistan, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Turkmenistan, Burma, and Nigeria (on the part of Boko Haram). Not to be outdone, North Korea bans all religious practice of any kind.
Obviously, it’s not only Christians who are being targeted; Muslims, for example, are being attacked in Burma, China, and Russia. And much of the reported violence is internecine warfare between Christians and Muslims, with atrocities on all sides.
Still, the report paints a sobering view of real threats to religious freedom abroad, as compared with imagined ones here in the United States.
So where is the outrage?
Well, for one thing, Americans tend toward the isolationist; many can’t be bothered to care about what goes on over the oceans. And no one knows where Turkmenistan is.
More to the point, Hobby Lobby and “Turn the Gays Away” laws are things Americans can do something about. By comparison, it’s hard to find a good intervention in Syria or Iraq—let alone China. Most of the places that are bad for Christians are bad places for everybody.
And then, of course, their Christians aren’t like our Christians. When I lived in Israel, it was always fun to watch white-bread American Protestants respond to the noisy, bustling, and smells-and-bells Christianity practiced by many Palestinians. It’s as if they couldn’t decide whether these people were Christians or Arabs. (Of course, they are both—and suffer just as much as Palestinian Muslims do from Israel’s policies often beloved by Christian Zionists.)
Still, the oppression of Christians abroad could be a much-needed reality check for those complaining about the War on Christmas. It could remind them of what religious liberty is: not the freedom to discriminate, but freedom from discrimination, violence, and worse.
It might even bring religious conservatives and progressives together again, as they were when they passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, when everyone knew it was meant to protect vulnerable minorities, as opposed to multi-million-dollar corporations.
For the moment, though, conservative “religious freedom” activists have more in common with those persecuting Christians than with the Christians being persecuted. They are a majority faith imposing their beliefs on others. They often have the force of law behind them. And they seem not to imagine that the tables might someday be turned—as is the case for millions of Christians today.